Writing Advice for People Who’ve Never Read Hemingway

On the Hemingway Editor App; the shortcomings of sticking too strictly to style guides; and the virtues of verbosity and eccentricity.

One of the keys to writing good content for the web is to keep it simple. To this end, we’ll sometimes use a free web-based editing app called Hemingway, especially if the subject we’re writing about is very complex. The app helps to ensure that we’re breaking the subject down in the simplest way, so that a broad spectrum of readers can understand it at a glance.

The app’s namesake, the great storyteller Ernest Hemingway, famously favored the active voice, kept his vocabulary simple, and avoided adverbs like the plague. The overall effect of these style choices is writing that is clear, confident, and unpretentious. Hemingway’s style has been so widely emulated over the years that his preferences are pretty much baked into modern written English.

But should we all be trying to emulate a dude who was born in 1899? More to the point of this article, should we who are in the business of writing engaging and informative content for the web be taking our style cues from an app called Hemingway?

The Hemingway App promises to make your writing “bold and clear”, and who doesn’t want that?

The app highlights wordy, long sentences in yellow, labeling them “hard to read”. A sentences that is “so dense and complicated that your readers will get lost trying to follow its meandering, splitting logic” gets highlighted in red for “very hard to read”. Complex sentences can be improved, Hemingway suggests, by splitting them up or shortening them.

The Hemingway App promises to make your writing bold and clear, a worthy goal.

Phrases that have been rendered in the passive voice, like this one, are marked in green. You can fix them by deploying heavy-lifting action verbs (see what I did there?). Fancy words, such as ‘utilize’, are highlighted in purple. They usually have a simpler alternative. In the case of ‘utilize’, ‘use’ is almost always preferable. Finally, pesky adverbs are helpfully shown in blue. They can simply be removed altogether.

Having consulted the app off and on for about a year, we’ve reached the conclusion that strict adherence to Hemingway’s suggestions doesn’t necessarily improve the readability of one’s writing, and can actually be counter-productive in other ways. That said, Hemingway does have its uses, and we would absolutely recommend it for beginning writers.

Here’s what we like about Hemingway and what we don’t like about it.

First, the good stuff:

  1. It lets you know when you’re lapsing into passive constructions too often.
  2. It helps you cut down on adverbs, many of which are verbal tics, and can weaken the thrust of your writing.
  3. It tells you when you’re puffing up your rhetoric with fancy words.
  4. It reminds you that short sentences are easier for readers to parse than long, complex sentences.

Here are a few of the downsides to over-reliance on the app:

  1. It underestimates the average reader’s ability to follow complex thoughts. If your subject matter is complex, it’s probably going to require some complex sentences.
  2. It doesn’t give a damn about rhythm, prosody, cadence, and a dozen other techniques and effects that distinguish writing that has the power to connect with readers from merely “readable” writing.
  3. Simpler words are not always best. Sprinkling in exotic, or less frequently used words, can spice up a piece of writing. Your subject may also call for the use of a specialized vocabulary, and simpler substitutions may not be possible or advisable.
  4. Short declarative sentences, one after the other, can result in monotonous or flat-sounding writing.

In essence, the Hemingway App is a sentence editor. It can’t really look at a paragraph and say, ‘Oh, those sentences flow together and support each other,’ or, ‘You know what, I like that modulation between the long, winding sentence that opens the paragraph and the short, pithy sentence that punctuates it.’ These are subtle style calls that only a good editor can make.

The truth is, good writing can take many forms. Writing for online audiences needs to convey information in a readable form and be engaging. We can be a lot more than be clear, bold, simple, etc. We can be expressive.

To illustrate this point, here are a few sentences from the first page of Hemingway’s own celebrated novel, A Farewell to Arms:

There was much traffic at night and many mules on the roads with boxes of ammunition on each side of their pack-saddles and gray motor trucks that carried men, and other trucks with loads covered with canvas that moved slower in the traffic. There were big guns too that passed in the day drawn by tractors, the long barrels of the guns covered with green branches and green leafy branches and vines laid over the tractors.

Here’s what the Hemingway App has to say about the passage:

Ouch! The app judged both of those meandering, sing-songy sentences, whose structure and cadence mimics the rhythm of the traffic being described, as very hard to read!

In order to split up the offending sentences (which, recall, were written by Ernest Hemingway) and avoid introducing passive constructions, all while eschewing adverbs, we’d have to do something like this:

There was much traffic at night, including gray motor trucks carrying men, and many mules. The mules had boxes of ammunition on each side of their pack-saddles. Other trucks with canvas-covered loads moved slower in the traffic. Big guns drawn by tractors passed by as well. Green leafy branches and vines laid over the tractors covered the guns.

I hope you’ll agree that this version isn’t much of an improvement. It certainly doesn’t cast a spell. It sounds like it’s written from the perspective of a bored soldier working a checkpoint.

The bottom line: When it comes to style, there’s no one-size-fits-all. Style guides like the one suggested by the Hemingway App, if adopted too strictly, can be an impediment to good storytelling, which human beings are wired to like and respond to.

Yes, favoring the active voice is going to make your writing pop. And yes, cutting down on adverbs is going to make you sound less hedge-y and more authoritative, both of which are good things if your goal is to come across as an expert on your subject.

On the other hand, don’t be afraid to use repetition to drive a point home. Or go on a crazy long tangent. And definitely maybe throw in some adverbs to keep things interesting. These are all the hallmarks of good storytelling.

If you can get your message across and have fun with the writing process it’s going to come across in your writing, and your readers will stick with you through whatever twists and turns you throw at them. And there you’ll be, at the top of Google search results, having done it your way.

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